July 11, 2021 homily on Ephesians 1:3-14 by Pastor Galen Zook
One of my favorite things in school was to be chosen by the teacher to run a special errand or to be given a special responsibility, like taking a note to the principal’s office, or showing a new student around the school.
When I was in 6th grade, my teacher asked me to coordinate a blanket drive for our 6th grade class. This felt like a huge responsibility because it involved making flyers and hanging them up around the school asking people to donate blankets that we could give out to people who were in need. Scariest of all, it involved making announcements on the school’s loudspeaker system. This blanket drive involved a lot of time and effort – and one of the side benefits was that it got me out of a lot of class time!
It’s fun to be chosen. It’s fun to be selected. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being chosen for a promotion at work, or selected to receive a scholarship at school. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being selected to be on a sports team. Or perhaps you’ve had the experience of being in love, and being chosen by a partner or significant other.
Of course many of us also know what it’s like to not be chosen also. We’ve been passed over for promotions that we thought we deserved. Perhaps we didn’t make the cut for a sports or performing arts team. Or worse, perhaps we were chosen last, and somewhat begrudgingly at that.
Before the Foundation of the World
In Ephesians chapter one, Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus. This is a church that in many ways could possibly feel like they have not been chosen, or that they’ve been passed over or left out, since they were not part of the people often known as God’s Chosen people – the Israelites. In addition, they might feel a little left out because the Apostle Paul is no longer with them. It seems that he’s moved on to planting other churches and doing other ministries, and they might feel like they’ve taken a back seat.
Paul knows this congregation well, having spent a significant amount of time with them, living and ministering in Ephesus for over 2 years — which was actually a long time for the Apostle Paul, who always seemed to be on the move.
Actually the story of Paul’s time in Ephesus is rather amazing, and you can read about it in Acts chapter 19. Interestingly enough, Paul actually had a very successful ministry in Ephesus among people who had formerly practiced various types of magic and witchcraft. Paul spent about two years dialoguing with them in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, after which many of them turned to Christ in a radical manner, burning all of their magic books and turning their hearts and lives over to Christ in a radical, all-encompassing way.
Paul’s ministry had had such a transformative impact on the city of Ephesus, in fact, that it garnered negative attention from the silversmiths and other artisans who crafted idols to one of the pagan deities. These craftsmen complained that Paul was depriving them of their businesses by convincing people that “gods made with hands are not gods” at all (Acts. 19:26). The city just about erupted in a riot, causing Paul to leave Ephesus rather hurriedly.
And so these new Christians in Ephesus, who had experienced radical transformation, who had turned away from their magic and idolatry, were left in many ways to figure out their newfound faith without the benefit of the Apostle Paul there to walk alongside them. And so perhaps they wondered if they were special enough, or good enough. Perhaps they felt a bit passed over, or forgotten, like they weren’t the first ones chosen for the team.
And so now, years later, Paul is writing this letter to the Ephesian Christians to encourage them in their faith. This is the only letter written by Paul in the New Testament that is not written to address a particular concern. Paul seems to have no issues with the way the Ephesian Christians are living out their faith – he is merely writing to encourage them – and through them all of the other churches – to continue growing in their faith and their walk with Christ.
And here in Chapter 1, as part of his encouragement to them, Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they were chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).
Imagine how much of a shock this statement must have been to the Ephesian Christians. As Gentiles, as people who used to practice idolatry and witchcraft, they probably lived with a constant, nagging fear that they weren’t good enough or holy enough, or worthy enough to be accepted by God or to be accepted into the people of God.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the phrases “Chosen people” and “holy nation” were generally reserved for the Israelite people. In Deuteronomy chapter 7, for example, Moses, speaking to the Israelites, says “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6).
And yet here in Ephesians 1, Paul, a Jewish Christian, is applying the same words used historically to describe the Isarelite nation, and using them to describe the Ephesian Christians, and indeed each and every one of us, saying that we have been chosen by God “to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
And Paul doesn’t say we were chosen second, or chosen last, or even that God chose us begrudgingly – he says, in fact, that each and every one of us have been chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
Chosen in Christ, before the foundation of the world. Think about that for a minute! God, who is sovereign over all creation, who the Psalmist describes as the “King of glory…The Lord strong and mighty” (Psalm 24:8). The One to whom the whole earth belongs – “the earth…and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). This God, the God who founded the seas, and established the rivers, as we read in Psalm 24:2. This God, has chosen us – you and me, the Ephesians, and people all around the world – before the foundation of the world.
Holy and Blameless
Now we may say “but what exactly have we been chosen for? What exactly have we been selected to do or to receive?
- We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (vs. 3).
- We’ve been chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless before him in love (vs. 4).
- We’ve been destined for adoption (vs. 5).
- God has redeemed us through Christ’s blood, and forgiven our trespasses according to the riches of his grace (vs. 7-8).
- God has made known to us the mystery of his will (vs. 9).
- We’ve been given an inheritance (vs. 10).
- We’ve been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit (vs. 13), which is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (vs. 14).
Notice that just about everything that Paul mentions in these verses are things that God has done for us through Christ! Not a single item on this list is something that we have to do in order to earn God’s favor or God’s blessing. God bestows these spiritual blessings upon us, and there’s nothing we have to do to earn or merit them.
Which is a good thing, because every single item on this list is something that we could not have done for ourselves. We couldn’t make ourselves holy and blameless. We couldn’t force ourselves to be adopted into the family of God. We couldn’t redeem ourselves, or learn the mystery of God’s will all on our own. We couldn’t earn an inheritance, since an inheritance is by nature something that is given, not earned. And we couldn’t mark ourselves with a seal of the Holy Spirit. Each and every one of these spiritual blessings come from God, they are initiated by God, and they are for the glory and praise of God.
Setting our Hope
But there’s one little phrase in the midst of all of this that I don’t want us to miss, because it is something that we can do, or perhaps have already done. Paul says in verse 12, “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).
Paul says that we have “set our hope” on Christ. In speaking to the Ephesians Christians, he sets this in the past tense – because they’ve already done it! The Ephesians set their hope on Christ when they got rid of all the barriers in their lives that had kept them from loving Christ. When they turned away from false idols, and gave their hearts and lives to Jesus, they were setting their hope on Christ.
We set our hope on Christ when we set aside our work for a few minutes each day to pray and read our Bibles. We set our hope on Christ when we come together to worship God, and when we advocate for justice, and serve those who are in need. We set our hope on Christ when we stop trying to find our identity in our careers or vocations or getting promotions at work or being chosen by other people, and instead we look to Jesus for our hope and our security. We set our hope on Christ when we lay aside everything that is holding us back, everything that might be a barrier or a hindrance in our relationship with God, when we lay everything we have and everything we are on the altar and say, “God use me! All I want to do is live for the praise of your glory.”
And this hope is not some pie-in-the sky hope, some dream that we just wish will someday be fulfilled. This hope that we have is a hope born out of adversity, a tested-and-tried type of hope, that has been through the wringer and come out the other side.
This is the type of hope that we see in the three young Hebrew men who were thrown into the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 – young men who had a bold and quiet confidence in God, who refused to bow down and worship the golden statue, but who said “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
This is the hope that we see lived out in Abraham and Sarah, Esther, and Ruth, David, and Deborah and Daniel. It’s a hope that we see expressed in the lives of Jesus’s disciples, in the Apostle Paul, and yes even in the Ephesians Christans. It’s a hope that we see expressed down through the ages, by saints and sinners – everyday people who turned their hearts and lives over to Christ, and said God, I want to live for the praise of your glory.
And so let us continue to set our hope on Jesus. Let us relish and celebrate the spiritual blessings that we have been given in Christ. We’ve been chosen, selected, not because of anything we’ve done to earn or merit God’s favor, but we’ve been chosen to receive from Christ all of the spiritual blessings that God has bestowed on us. Let us set our hope on Christ, and let us too live for the praise of his glory.